If a Product Claims to Boost Your Immunity, It’s Probably a Lie

updated Apr 10, 2020
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An abundance of vegetables including broccoli, avocado, eggplant, and asparagus
Credit: Joe Lingeman

Right now my Instagram feed is filled with food companies touting products that supposedly boost immunity. One wellness brand recently posted a smoothie photo with a caption that states, “In addition to strengthening your immunity and promoting glowing skin, they deliver a dose of much-needed self-care.” Another photographed one of their packaged wellness “shots” in front of someone doing yoga, and captioned it, “[Z food] has natural, immune-boosting properties that we love to capture and leverage for your health and wellness!”

It’s a similar case in my inbox. One email reads “[X product] is a superfood that has immune boosting properties.” Another says, “America’s number one [Y food] brand naturally boosts your immunity with the ultimate superfood.” One is even stronger, and really plays on the current state of things. “This [vegetable] is an untouched superfood that is a strong antioxidant that has been shown to naturally boost the immune system (we can all use a little help now).” And here’s a subject line that just came through: “The Essential, Easy Food for At-Home Immunity Boost.” 

You might be asking: What does it mean to “boost” your immune system, and can any product actually do this? 

The truth is, there’s no quick and easy way to boost your immune system.

None of these claims of “immunity boosting” foods are actually true. The fact is, our immune systems are complicated, and “boosting” them is a pretty vague and misunderstood goal. Here’s what the Harvard Health blog says on the topic.

“The idea of boosting your immunity is enticing, but the ability to do so has proved elusive for several reasons. The immune system is precisely that — a system, not a single entity. To function well, it requires balance and harmony. There is still much that researchers don’t know about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response. For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.”

In other words, there’s no evidence behind those immunity-boosting claims. Maybe a brand is using flawed science to incentivize you to buy something; maybe an influencer thinks they’re helping by offering tips (also based in flawed science) on how to boost your immune system. These claims run rampant.

A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Medicine looked at how different websites used terms like “boost immunity” to describe things like food, diet, and supplements. Unsurprisingly, the study found that commercial websites (those that sell something) were more likely to mention immunity-boosting benefits alongside mentions of supplements, specific foods, or specific vitamins and minerals. What they didn’t tend to mention were the more overarching — and, ahem, less commodifiable — things like lifestyle, overall diet, or relaxation. 

Why are there so many false claims about “immunity boosting” foods? 

Why then, despite all evidence to the contrary, are we all so bought into the idea of immunity-boosting foods, diets, and other products? Wishful thinking is likely one reason — it’s normal to want more control over your own health, especially in the face of a global pandemic that no one totally understands or has good control of right now. Another reason is the diet/wellness culture we live in, which tells us there is a “perfect” way of eating (which, for the record, doesn’t exist), and that this “perfect” diet can solve all of our problems, from body image to chronic disease.

“The most important thing to think about right now is that anytime you’re seeing a message like that that says, ‘Eat this for immunity,’ that is wellness culture preying on you at your most vulnerable moment,” says Anna Sweeney, MS, RD, CEDRD a Boston-Based dietitian. “There is no such thing as a food that is going to boost an immune system.” Not all aspects of our health are within our control, and while diet is one factor in your overall health, it’s not the end-all, be-all answer.

Believing in immunity-boosting foods can actually be harmful.

The fact is, many of the foods that carry immune-boosting claims are more expensive than less glamorous healthy staples. Not being able to afford these things can lead to stress, Sweeney says, which ultimately might suppress immune function. 

But the rhetoric is harmful even if you can afford to buy $5 wellness shots and cook recipes loaded with so-called superfoods. “This propaganda that is perpetuated by diet culture is absolutely harmful to anyone, especially those who are working so hard to have a more peaceful relationship with food,” says Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, a San Diego-based dietitian and maternal and child health expert. “This type of thinking around food ignores the bigger picture of health and the other important factors that are necessary for staying well, physically, mentally, and emotionally.” 

Believing that certain “good” foods have immunity-boosting powers while other “bad” foods don’t means that you’ll likely feel guilty when you eat the “bad” ones, or don’t eat enough of the “good” ones. “It’s critical to remember that any stress or anxiety around food that might be caused by food rules (i.e., ‘You should eat this!’ or ‘Don’t eat that!’) is actually far worse for [you] than any one food you could eat,” Karges says. When it comes to your immune system, there’s just no evidence behind these kinds of rules, and too much stress and anxiety can have negative effects on your overall health — including (you guessed it!) suppressing your immune system.

So, what should you do about all of this misinformation floating around? “To the best of your abilities, tune it out,” Sweeney says. Most of us are spending more time on the internet these days, she says, and it’s natural to search for answers on the internet when there’s so much uncertainty everywhere. But don’t be fooled by false claims: “To be quite frank,” Sweeney says, “if there’s anyone on social media or the internet suggesting that there’s a specific food, exercise, or anything that’s going to improve immunity, they’re lying.”

Is there anything productive I can actually do for my immune system? 

The good news is, there are some things you can do to help your whole body, including your immune system, function at its best. Don’t smoke or eat undercooked meat, and do eat fruits and vegetables, get enough sleep, minimize stress, exercise, drink in moderation (or not at all), and wash your hands. And whether you’re relying on canned soup, takeout, or elaborate homemade dinners and baking projects to get you through this pandemic, Sweeney says that the best thing you can do for your immune system is make sure you’re eating enough, at regular intervals, to keep yourself energized and nourished. 

Christine Byrne is a freelance food journalist and former restaurant cook who hopes to make wellness more accessible (and fun!) for everyone. She is anti-diet and pro-pizza — but yes, she also loves vegetables. She lives in North Carolina and is currently pursuing a master’s in public health and nutrition.